THERMOPOLIS — Hidden in plain sight for years was a treasure that may be worth as much or more than the Wyoming museum that now has it.
The treasure is one of the five original copies of a photograph that Harry Longabaugh — better known as the “Sundance Kid” — had taken with his paramour, Ethel “Etta” Place, just before the wanted outlaws fled the country for Argentina with notorious outlaw partner Butch Cassidy.
The photo was taken in 1901 in New York by the DeYoung Photography Studio. Some historians have suggested it’s a wedding photo, as the two are rather handsomely dressed. Harry is holding onto a top hat, while Etta has a gold pocket watch pinned to the lapel of her dress, which Harry had just purchased for her at the Tiffany & Co. jewelry store.
Longabaugh bought five photographs of the couple. These types of photographs were then known as cabinet cards. A cabinet card consists of a photograph mounted onto a larger card, often with decorative edges that serve as a sort of frame, though in this case the frame is underneath the photo rather than on top.
Copies of this famous shot of the Sundance Kid and his lady are commonplace, but there was something distinctive about this particular photograph that’s in the Hot Springs County Museum & Cultural Center.
The embossed border around the photograph was not only distinctive, it was a perfect match for the original cabinet cards Harry had bought to send friends and family as a fond farewell.
How The Photograph Came To Thermopolis
The photograph was one of several donated to the museum from the estate of Minnie Brown, who died a pauper in 1940 and was buried on Monument Hill in Thermopolis.
Thermopolis Tourism Director Jackie Dorothy has been researching the life of Brown, who is at the center of a murder mystery that’s never been solved.
Brown had married the town butcher, Mike Brown, in 1907, but in December 1908 she told authorities that she had shot and killed him.
According to the account she gave law enforcement, he’d been abusive and was choking her, so she shot him with one of his own guns.
Because that would have been self-defense, she was never charged with a crime. But investigators noted at the time that none of the details of her account matched the forensic evidence. The bullet couldn’t have been fired from where Brown said she was standing nor was the gun she claimed to have used the one that had killed her husband.
Dorothy’s research indicates that Brown also had in her possession watches from the infamous Wilcox train robbery. That was the crime that had finally forced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to flee the country in the first place.
“The plot thickens with her,” Dorothy said.
On the back of the photo in Brown’s handwriting are the words, “This gentleman is one of our real gentlemen who knew how to get the money and not cripple or kill … Taken in New York just before he sailed to never return.”
The Thermopolis museum has placed its famous original photo in a vault because it’s worth a small fortune, Dorothy said.
A copy is on display for the public to view for now, although the original is sometimes taken out for special occasions.
There have been some discussions of selling the photograph, Dorothy said but so far, the consensus seems to be the photograph belongs in Thermopolis, where Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were once regular figures.
What Really Happened In South America?
Discussion of the mysterious photograph inevitably brings up the South American years for Cassidy and his fellow gang member, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place.
“It’s a debate and it’s one of those fun mysteries,” Dorothy said. “Did they die in South America like the movie portrays, or was that just a dramatic ending?”
Dorothy said the family has told her that Cassidy came back to the United States. Other Thermopolis residents who know the Cassidy family have told Cowboy State Daily that the Wild Bunch gang member kept in touch, sending the family postcards.
Dorothy, meanwhile, doesn’t believe the story told about the two in South America fits either of the men.
“This is where you wear your sociology hat,” she said, adding that Cassidy and Longabauh “never killed anyone. Those two outlaws weren’t violent. To say that they killed others, and then killed each other … I mean, you’re gonna say that (they) changed that completely?”
She also believes it unlikely that Cassidy would have agreed to some lamebrain plot to steal the payroll for miners who worked for a well-known cartel family. The two were supposed to have been betrayed by locals after the theft, resulting in a shootout that the official record says claimed their lives.
“He would have known about that after living there for four years,” she said. “So, I think it was just a convenient scapegoat for the Pinkerton agents to be able to close the case.”
Did They Return?
Many sightings of Cassidy, as well as Longabaugh and Place, have been reported over the years, and there are whole books written about what aliases they might have been living under.
Dorothy has been told by Cassidy’s family, some of whom still live in the Thermopolis area, that Cassidy did in fact return to the United States.
“He just had a normal life from all accounts,” she said. “I do believe that he did end up in Washington state, and the family knew where he was but never told.”
As for whether there are any descendants of Cassidy, that seems unlikely, Dorothy said.
“It doesn’t sound like he did,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like he ever married, because his family said they kept in touch with him, and that he was just a bachelor to the end.
“But he might have descendants because in our Arapaho tribe — talk to an Arapaho — we say that we know Butch Cassidy had an Arapaho girlfriend. So, there’s the possibility he had Arapaho kids.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.